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Home Sweet Home August 22, 2012

Posted by sesolomon in Travel Log.
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Free water, free bathrooms, ice in my drink, people who speak my own language, friends, family, homemade food, cars on the right side of the road, WalMart, Jimmy John’s, Chick-Fil-A, my car, American music, Tech…

As sad as I was to leave the beautiful continent of Europe, there really is no place like home.  My companions and I felt a bit guilty about being excited to finish up our amazing study abroad, but in the words of my mother, “11 weeks really is quite long, Sonja.”  Probably the hardest part about leaving Oxford was dragging my 25kg (the limit was 23kg…) suitcase, stuffed duffle, and backpack all the way from my dorm across campus to the bus.  By the end of the trek, my hands, arms, and back were all sore from dragging the ridiculous amount of necessities and souvenirs I had brought/procured from Europe.  After our last breakfast in the Oxford dining hall, Oxford Group 3 boarded the bus for the last time and began our journey home.  We enjoyed our last moments together as a group by recounting stories, laughing until we cried, and reading superlatives about each group member.  I never thought I would become so attached to these new friends I had made this summer but it was definitely very hard to say goodbye to them, no matter how excited I was to go home.  Thank goodness we all go to the same college and this won’t be the last time I ever see them!

When we arrived at the airport, 50 students with 11 weeks of intense traveling experience quickly and expertly disembarked from the bus, checked in our luggage, went through security (our last time for awhile!!) and headed to our gate.  The 9 hour plane ride seemed considerably longer as I was extremely anxious to see my parents after our three month separation.  Upon landing, we headed through customs, grabbed our bags, and almost sprinted towards the exit.  I quickly spotted my parents and made a beeline straight for them.  I had assumed that my mom would be the first to rush forward and hug me but it was in fact my dad who beat her to it, almost pushing her out of the way, in order to hug me first.  After giving both my parents two big hugs, I spotted my best friend Lucy Tucker who had come to surprise me at the airport as well.  Words cannot describe how happy I was in that moment to be home with the people I love most.

After a delectable dinner of my favorite restaurant, Jimmy John’s, we started the three hour drive home to Tennessee.  Needless to say, I passed out in the car on the way home and stumbled up to my own wonderful bed once we had arrived home at midnight (keep in mind, this is 5am Oxford time).

I cannot even begin to describe how incredible this summer study abroad program has been for me.  Saying it was one of the best experiences of my life doesn’t even do it justice.  Because of the generosity of the Fleet Scholarship and my parents, I was able to travel to dozens of different cities, learn about their culture, experience the Olympics in person, make new friends, and much much more.  Thank you so very much for this absolutely incredible opportunity; it has truly been a life-changing experience that I will always hold close to my heart.

Rome! August 22, 2012

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Easily one of my favorite cities that we traveled to during the travel portion of the Oxford program was Rome, Italy.  Because of the hustle and bustle of this city, easily the best way to get around to all the historic sites was by foot, hence the need for TWO walking tours!  The first day, we walked to the Capitoline Hill (designed by Michelangelo), the Roman Forum (the historic hub of Roman government), and the Colosseum.  Having been to Rome before, I wasn’t expecting to be as awed by the ruins as I had been the first time.  How wrong I was!  Regardless of it being my second time around, I was still shocked at how incredible each of these historical sites were.  My favorite for this day was by far the Roman Colosseum.  Located a stone’s throw away from the Roman Forum, this arena staged brutal sporting events in which fights between men and sometimes animals were often to the death.  Quite different from our modern day football and basketball games!  The Colosseum had several different levels for spectators to view from and climbing up the giant sized stairs was exercise enough!  Once we got to the top, we were able to walk out into the viewing area and see the whole inside of the arena.  What really surprised me was that a building like this could survive for so many years and still be structurally sound.

The Roman Colosseum

The next day, we visited the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon.  Finished in 1762, this fountain was used as an aqueduct by the ancient Romans.  It is said that if you throw a coin into the fountain, you will return to Rome.  As it worked for me the first time and I was enjoying the city my second go-round, I through a coin into the fountain hoping that I would revisit this historic city yet again.  The Pantheon was equally as impressive as the Colosseum with its large dome and circular obelisk.  We learned that this monument has the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome and that the obelisk in the ceiling exposes the Pantheon to the elements.  However, the ancient Romans were smart and made the Pantheon floors slanted to the middle so that the rain water would drain and not flood the entire building.

The Trevi Fountain

The Pantheon

Pantheon Obelisk

The following day, our group toured Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica.  This beautiful sovereign city-state was absolutely packed with people making it slightly difficult to navigate through.  My favorite room in the Vatican was a long hallway that had gold-framed paintings illuminated on the ceiling.  The lighting and the beautiful colors of the painting gave it a very palatial feel and was absolutely breathtaking.  Equally as stunning was the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo.  To think that one man spent virtually years of his life on one room simply blew my mind.  After spending a few awestruck minutes in the chapel, we exited the Vatican and proceeded to St. Peter’s Basilica.  The Basilica was equally as impressive as the Vatican.  Set in the middle of the huge St. Peter’s Square, the Basilica towers above and contains many important sculptures and works of architecture art.

My favorite room in the Vatican

St. Peter’s Basilica Altar

St. Peter’s Basilica

By far my favorite excursion in Rome actually happened to be a spur of the moment decision.  My roommate and I shared a room that was on the top floor of our hotel and which had access to the roof outside.  Several of my friends and I ventured out onto the roof and got to take in the beautiful country of Italy from on high.  Though not as tall or touristy as some famous viewing spots like the Eiffel Tower, this was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Roof in Rome!

All in all, my return to Rome was a huge success and I’m hoping my Trevi Fountain fortune will come true and I will someday return to this beautiful city!

Barcelona!! August 1, 2012

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On one of my weekend excursions, I traveled with a group of friends to the beautiful city of Barcelona.  After weeks and weeks of rainy and cold weather in Oxford, I was greatly looking forward to the sunshine and 80º weather that was supposed to greet us when we arrived in Spain.  As I stepped off the plane, my expectations were met as a wonderful gust of warm air hit me in the face and I quickly shed my essential Oxford gear, my yellow rain jacket.

Local enjoying the Barcelona sunshine!

As this was the fourth weekend we had been traveling outside of Oxford, my group and I had a pretty good idea of how to get around major cities.  We hoped on a bus to get from the Girona airport to the main city of Barcelona and once there bought a 2 day metro pass to navigate our way around the city.  After settling into our hostel, we had about half the day remaining in which to explore the city.  We walked around a market complete with fruit, candy, and all sorts of smelly seafood.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a Tapas (“appetizers”) restaurant.  Here, the custom was to order several small dishes (tapas) which equaled your meal.  I got a delectable combination of fried potatoes with spicy sauce and chicken kebabs.

Candy stand in the covered market

Smelly fish

After our lunch, we ambled over to the main street, La Rambla.  This being the “main drag” of Barcelona, it was filled with tourists, vendors, and the one and only, McDonald’s.  We walked up and down this street and went into several of the souvenir shops.  Inside were endless mosaic figurines modeled after the colorful and vibrate style of Gaudí, architect/designer of La Sagrada Familia and Park Guell (for more info on these, read on!!)  After shopping a little, we walked down to the pier and had dinner at a restaurant along the beach.  Per Spanish tradition, we shared a plate of chicken paella which everybody greatly enjoyed.

Beautiful beach

Chicken Paella!!

The next day we woke up early and rode the metro to the famous church, La Sagrada Familia (“The Sacred Family”).  Construction on this building began in 1882 and is still going on today.  The architect, Antoni Gaudí, was greatly influenced by nature.  The outside of the church at first gave the impression that it was melting, but as we got closer we saw that it is actually intricately carved with scenes from the Bible and wildlife.

Outside/back of La Sagrada Familia

Complete with wildlife!

When we first arrived, a line stretched all the way around the back side of the church.  Undaunted, we joined the queue and made it inside in a little less than an hour.  When I first stepped in, I looked up and literally gasped.  Because of Gaudí’s interest in nature, he had designed the entire church to look as if you are standing in a forest.  The columns that hold up the roof are carved to resemble tree trunks and the ceiling is covered in ceramic foliage that looks like a forest ceiling.  Vibrant colors shone from everywhere, especially from the many stained glass windows.  Words simply cannot describe the beauty of this church.

Absolutely breathtaking

The “Forest Roof” ceiling

Tree-like columns and forest ceiling

Close-up of the Nativity Scene

After spending well over two hours in La Sagrada Familia we grabbed a quick bite to eat, jumped back on the metro, and traveled to Park Guell, another Gaudí creation.  Famous for it’s large mosaic seating area and mosaic lizard, this World Heritage Site was begun in 1900 and finished in 1914.  It is located on top of a very steep hill which makes it a wonderful place to view the entire city of Barcelona.

View of Barcelona from Park Guell

Famous mosaic seating area

View from mosaic seating area

Famous lizard!

After touring the park, we headed back to the beach where we took a nice stroll in the sand with the water coming up just enough to brush our feet.  This was probably one of my happiest and most relaxed moments on the entire trip.  After our walk, we again ate by the beach, walked along La Rambla at night, and pretty soon thereafter fell asleep after one of the best trips I’ve gone on this summer.

My friend Jordan and me at the beach!

London Olympics 2012! July 31, 2012

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One of the portions of the trip that I had been looking forward to the most was going to the Olympics.  I had bought Beach Volleyball and Gymnastics tickets during the spring semester with my good friend Jordan.  Our first Olympic adventure consisted of us traveling up to London a day early to pick up our tickets.  After waiting in line for two hours, we finally made it to the pick-up stand.  I received my tickets and went outside to wait for Jordan.  An hour later, he came outside and told me they were having an issue finding his tickets and we could wait in the waiting room while they figured it all out.  We proceeded into the waiting room where there were many other patrons experiencing similar problems to ours.  As we waited, a lady came up and told Jordan that his Beach Volleyball ticket had been lost but in order to make up for the loss, the ticket company had issued him two prime seats for the gymnastics.  Unfortunately, she claimed that nothing could be done about the volleyball tickets because every single seat had been taken.  Jordan politely asked to see a manager who came over about 20 minutes later.  Just as he began explaining his predicament to the manager, the first lady came back with a big smile on her face and an envelope in her hands.  Believe it or not, she had found Jordan’s ticket.  So by the end of our 6 hour journey at the ticket station, we ended up walking out with both of our beach volleyball tickets and TWO VIP gymnastics tickets!

Olympic Ticket Holders!!

The next day our adventures began with a 6:30am train ride to Paddington Station and a brief walk to Horse Guards Parade, the Beach Volleyball venue.  When we arrived, we encountered a huge gathering of people clustered around the square.  Unbeknownst to us, this was the line to get in.  After walking through the square and receiving several mean looks, we realized it was the line and turned around attempting to find the beginning.  We “joined the queue” as they say here in England but it ended up being a line of people who, like us, didn’t have a clue where we were supposed to be and accidentally ended up cutting the entire line.  Instead of waiting three hours, we got inside the venue within 10 minutes.  (One advantage of being a dumb tourist)  In the next ten minutes, we walked to the stadium, took some pictures, saw one of the Russian volleyball players walk in, and found our seats.  It just so happened that Savannah Andersen, her mom, and Allison Smedberg were seated just a few rows ahead of us. Savannah’s mom was very kind and offered me her seat and as I settled down in the front row I looked out onto the pristine sand of the Olympic Beach Volleyball court.

Olympic Beach Volleyball Court at Horse Guards Parade

We got to see two women’s matches and two men’s matches.  The strength, precision, and agility of these Olympic athletes completely blew my mind.  During the women’s matches we got to see China vs. Russia and Czech Republic vs. Germany.  For the men, we saw Latvia vs. Poland and Germany vs. Russia.  My favorite athlete was Latvian Aleksandrs Samoilovs nicknamed “The Lion King” for his mane of hair.  He was extremely excitable and would yell and stir up the crowd with his antics.  Not to mention, he was an amazingly powerful volleyball player.  After the Latvians won, Savannah and Allison waved and cheered at him so that he came over to our section, gave us high fives, and signed our tickets for us, complete with hearts!  Talk about a once in a lifetime experience.  The German team came over as well after their victory and talked to us and signed our tickets too!

Touching the Lion King’s hand!!

Signed ticket! Notice the two little hearts from the Lion King 🙂

After volleyball, Jordan and I headed to the Olympic Village.  Once inside, we realized that the Olympic Village was just a huge shopping mall solely for Olympic ticket holders.  We stocked up on London 2012 Olympic gear and witnessed, first hand, the craziness that occurs when millions of people from around the world show up in one place.  There was literally a crowd of about 10,000 people waiting to enter the metro station after one of the events let out.  I was just thankful I had found myself a mall in which to kill time while we waited.

I wouldn’t want to be in that line…

Our next event was Artistic Gymnastics.  We took the metro to North Greenwich Arena and entered a huge white dome.  Inside it was like a mini city complete with restaurants, shops, and even a movie theatre.  We shopped around a little bit more and then went to go find our VIP seats.  After sitting down, we looked around and it hit me that I was about to see some of the best gymnasts in the entire world.  We were seated next to the vault but as we were seeing men’s gymnastics the other 5 events included parallel bars, high bar, floor, pommel horse, and rings.  The five teams we saw were Spain, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and Romania.  The Olympic athletes again blew my mind with their physical prowess and made me feel guilty for only working out once this entire summer.  We were seated about 20 feet away from the vault which had a really cool camera set up next to it that slid along a track while the gymnast ran down the length of the runway. (Took a picture of this, please see below, total Tech student move).  After gymnastics we took the metro/train home and I quickly fell asleep after a tiring but absolutely amazing day!

North Greenwich Arena – Gymnastics Venue

Inside the Arena!

The Vault Camera!!

The Crucifix on the Rings

Flare on the Pommel Horse

Brugge: The Unhealthy Food Lover’s Paradise July 29, 2012

Posted by sesolomon in Travel Log.
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During our stay in Belgium, we took a day trip to a quiet little town called Brugge.  Famous for its waffles, fries, and beer, it was easily one of my favorite cities we traveled to this summer.  It is a quiet little town with beautiful green scenery and quaint little homes.  It was quite relaxing to visit a place like this after the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities we’d been visiting.

A Beautiful Town

After going on a short walking tour around the city and visiting a monastery and a few old churches, we were given free time for the rest of the day.  The options included exploring the city on our own or going on a 20 mile bike ride with one of the group leaders.  Judging by my lack of exercising the whole summer, I made the wise choice to avoid physical exertion.  Instead I began the day with a calorie-heavy, happiness-filled chocolate Belgian waffle.  As if I needed reassurance that I liked the city, this waffle did me in.  It was topped with powdered sugar and whipped cream and a hush fell over our group as each of us savored every single bite.

YUMMMMMMM

 

After that mouthwatering “lunch” we continued walking along the street.  There was a mini antique market in the center of the town which we spent about an hour exploring.  Brugge is also known for its lace and chocolate and we saw many shops devoted to these two items.  Looking back on the travel portion, I realized my liking of a city was influence quite a lot by how good the food was there.  No wonder I enjoyed Brugge!  I literally planned my day around which food item I wanted to sample next!  We visited about six different chocolate shops during the day and I made sure to buy some for later.  Chocolate is good for the soul, right?

After convincing ourselves that our figures were going to have to take one for the team, we stopped at a small restaurant along the main drag in order to try some famous Belgian french fries.  Our anticipation was at a high point as we watched the waitress place them on a plate, lightly salt them, and head towards our table.  Step aside, Chick-Fil-A, your waffles fries don’t have ANYTHING on these Belgian potatoes.  Paired with an ice-cold Coke, my day couldn’t have gotten any better.

After second lunch, we shopped around a little bit more and then made our way back to the bus.  Brugge had rejuvenated all of us with its quiet atmosphere, beautiful scenery, and absolutely delicious culinary delights.  Dearest waffles, chocolate, and fries, I will surely be returning.